The Last Garden

Frost and Sun: October Morn
Image by fred1st via Flickr

The garden of the summer of 2010 that I put away this morning was fair: more productive than some disastrous years we’ve had, not nearly as bountiful as 2002, or as 1981, our biggest and best garden ever. The goodness or badness of a garden is relative,  against the standards of a lifetime of tended and care-for plots that have come and gone. I say “lifetime” as if I’d done this 62 times, as if gardens were as regular as birthdays. But in truth, the number of gardening years has been less than half the grand total.

Now that I think about it, other than a few tomato plants my mother sometimes grew behind our three Birmingham suburban homes of my youth, I was as unfamiliar with rooted and growing garden vegetables as my grand-daughters are today.

My first intentional personal garden, modest as it was, must have been during my second year of graduate school, age 23. By that time, we’d left the concrete block “married students” ghetto at Auburn and moved into a house that had the bad fortune to have been built in the 30s on a residential block some distance from the edge of campus of that day.

By the early 70s, this quiet street, Wrights Mill Road, and all the little lanes nearby were overtaken by the pseudopodia of a growing student body extending its arms for habitat into once-secluded neighborhoods near campus. We grew a few squash plants out back, and were mighty proud of the back-to-the-land cred we thought that bought us during the bell-bottom era. We intended better than this some day–maybe a real homestead of our own.

It was three years later, the summer of 1975 after we moved to Virginia that we had our first serious, sustained, intentional and reasonably successful garden. It was the first time I’d ever used a tiller (a rear-tine torture machine loaned by our neighbor) to attack the impossible clods of clay under the sod of our chosen spot on Withers Road in the town limits of Wytheville.

By then, I had me a manly truck (a little Datsun that started rusting through the first summer we had it.) I hand-forked and hauled three heavy batches of very fresh manure and bedding hay from the cattle auction barn on the edge of town. Given all that nitrogen in the uncomposted waste, the vigor of the pigweed and poke that year was impressive. The veggies, not so much. I had a lot to learn. Even so, Ann canned some of what we made that year–another first, to be repeated most but not all the years we’ve gardened since.

So by 1981, we’d moved from town to the country–and at last, had the little homestead we’d imagined since Wrights Mill Road. Mother Earth News: we have arrived! There on Greasy Creek, we had 20 acres, no nosey neighbors, the freedom to fail in our own way, and lots of southern exposure. I took a free class at the vocational school, and got all the peat pots, potting soil and seeds we could possibly use–and then some. I grew and threshed our own wheat that first year on the farm. We had more than 50 tomato plants that season. The kids cranked the Squeezo–a form of child-slavery torture for which they’ve never forgiven me–to make anything that could be made from tomatoes.

There were the barren years back in Birmingham, 1987 to ‘89, when we didn’t have either the time, space or left-over energy to garden. But as soon as we landed in Sylva, I bought a Honda tiller to replace the Troy-bilt we sold when we left Wytheville, and we were gardening again. And after moving to Morganton in ‘91, a half-block from the Rec Center, we made a garden so close to the sidewalk, I was afraid it would surely be vandalized. It was.

I moved to Walnut Knob, way out on the parkway, in 1997, and was overcome with gratitude the first time I stepped inside that little fenced garden and orchard to dig my hands deep in the dark loam. But we knew it was not going to be our final garden. There was some place we belonged, and we waited for it to be revealed to us.

That would end up being exactly where I sit today, in a frost-pocket deep valley with rocky soil, our garden now inside the stockade fence, from which I have just come. We’ve gardened here since the summer of 2000. It is the last place we will grow vegetables, Lord willing, as we hope to never move from this place while living.

As surely as there was a first garden in my life, there will be a last garden. The reality came to me this morning as I pulled the cherry tomato vines from the eight-foot cattle-panel walls of our vegetable fortress. It might not be this one; probably won’t. But at some point, I will have planted my last seed, pulled my last weed, eaten my last home-grown tomato, and washed the garden soil from under my fingernails with a sense of pride and satisfaction for the last time.

I’m not being morbid or morose, though that sense of finality’s approach does weigh more heavily on me with every passing season. It should not bring so much sadness as appreciation, not so much a sense of loss as a determination not to take a single seed, weed, or ray of sun for granted in the summers we have left.

It looks mighty empty and forlorn out there this afternoon, all bald and bare and brown. But actuarially speaking, we’re likely to watch the whole show all over again, come May, June, summer and fall harvest of 2011. I hung up the hoe and mattock today. But not for good. I saved seed from this year’s heirloom beans and tomatoes. And I’ll be ready, come spring, to enjoy next year’s garden as if it were my last.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Fred, Excellent post tying life and death together for all living things. It is a dance that can be lived through the bloom of a flower, the smile of a child, a grandfathers hand or other loves we experience every day. Thanks for putting your dance into meaningful words. — barbara

  2. Isn’t it amazing, how much life you can pack into life……..
    I really enjoy reading this post…….. I especially like that line “there was someplace we belonged, and we waited for it to be revealed to us”
    I think you two were following your heart and soul….

    I also think you have many more gardens to plant and tend……..

    Hey, how about a photo of Tsuga sometime in this Fragments?? you know how I like to hear about that dog…….

    by the way….do you know where your hens are?? 🙂

    Ya’ll take care..


  3. I grew up with large gardens. I’d say we grew or raised half our food as a youngster on a small homestead. Our gardens these day are compact but prolific. Tomatoes were a great success this year, but winter squash not very good thanks to an industrious groundhog. Broccoli, carrots, kale, chard, lettuce, corn, peas, and basil were also very good this year. Pole beans a dismal failure, also due to our ground hog neighbor.

  4. Last Dogs. Yeah. Ann wants to add on a second pup now that Tsuga is getting on in years (he’ll be 8 his next birthday in June). I’m not so sure we shouldn’t avoid the risk of owning a dog who will need new owners in his or her lifetime. But we also acknowledge how often we get out, get exercise, enjoy life BECAUSE of the obligations to the pets in our lives. Maybe we’ll get one who is more on the order of 20 pounds of unbridled energy who will be less prone to pull us off our feet. Or maybe a gold fish?